Ongoing archeological excavations in the late medieval church yard of Valjala, an old settlement on the island of Saaremaa off the western Estonian mainland, have revealed 15 graves from the mid 13th century.
Five people were originally buried in limestone coffins but fragments of wood, some of it resembling birch bark, still await exploration and, according to the local newspaper Saarte Hääl, they give reason to believe that at least one child had been buried in a wooden coffin.
The height of one of the men was at least 180 centimeters and he had a remarkably sturdy bone structure, which contributes to the hypothesis based on historical records that Saaremaa's population in general was significantly taller than other Europeans in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Also of interest at the site is that the deceased women were not wearing their copious jewelry but it was found beside them, or under them, in the graves. Unlike in other 12th century burials from the same region, men had no jewelry.
Speaking of the present stage of the excavations, Marika Mägi, professor of archeology at the University of Tartu, said: "We can only do guesswork right now, but we think that these people were adherents to a natural religion who had only lately adopted Christianity. It seems that men adopted the new religion more easily than women, or perhaps women simply held on more to traditional rites. In the Christian faith, material belongings had no significance in the afterlife."
The relatively small island of Saaremaa (2,673 square kilometers) was first Christianized during a lengthy struggle from 1215 to 1227 by the forces of the Danish king and German crusaders. For centuries prior, the island's inhabitants, saarlased, were known as bold seafarers, shipbuilders and pirates feared by the Danish, Swedish and Russian merchant fleets. Viking-type ship burials dating from the Bronze Age have been discovered in several coastal regions of the island.